BoJack Horseman Illustrator Lisa Hanawalt Used to Fear Horses

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A page from Hot Dog Taste Test.
A page from Hot Dog Taste Test.Photo: Lisa Hanawalt

One thing you probably didn’t know about Lisa Hanawalt is that she used to have a hoof print on her torso. Another is that she has previously cracked a rib. She’s been bitten, she’s been thrown. She lived 17 years in both fear and awe of the majestic beast that is the horse. And now she spends a large part of her life both riding on them and drawing one. The latter is a depressed drunk who is half-man. The former, well, probably not.

“Riding horses is supposed to be four times more dangerous than motorcycling,” she tells me over breakfast at the Egg Shop, a restaurant in New York that serves food in bowls. (This prompts Hanawalt to muse that people have been eating food in bowls for thousands of years — why is bowl-eating such a trend all of a sudden?) I fact-check this motorcycle statistic later, and she’s sort of right: a dodgy 2007 BBC report found that horse-riding is 20 times more dangerous than motorcycling. When she was younger, she knew with certainty that riding horses was “her thing,” but stayed away for 17 years out of fear. “The fear is part of why I like doing it. It’s a 1,200-pound animal that can kill you,” she says solemnly, a worried face beneath a swirl of pink hair.

Hanawalt’s interest in equestrianism should be evident given her job: For the past four years, Hanawalt has been the lead illustrator on BoJack Horseman, a Netflix show about a drunk horse-man. If you haven’t seen it, stay with me: Will Arnett, Amy Sedaris, Stanley Tucci, Aaron Paul, and a cast of others from a grab-bag labeled “Hollywood” do voice work for the show about a washed-up ‘90s TV star who resists becoming friends with a talking dog named Mr. Peanutbutter (one word) and who dates an owl who just woke up from a coma after 30 years. J.D. Salinger is a character. So is Vincent Adultman, a boyfriend of BoJack’s agent, who is literally three children standing on top of each other in a trench coat. The show is the brainchild of Hanawalt’s high-school friend Raphael Bob-Waksberg, and it is funny and ridiculous and sad. And thanks to Hanawalt, it is a visual treat to watch.

Hanwalt, now 33, studied art at UCLA, where she says she wasn’t necessarily prepared for the real world. “I don’t mean to diss UCLA!” she backtracks as we talk over coffees with almond milk and these damn bowls (an eggish one for me, an avocadoish one for her). “But when I graduated and wasn’t immediately getting gallery shows in Chelsea, it was like, ‘Okay, I’ve got to figure something else out.’” That something else was working a ten-to-four secretary job and putting together a web comic at night with Bob-Waksberg called Tip Me Over, Pour Me Out, about the writer’s life. (It has since been removed from the internet because their domain expired.) Fast-forward to 2011: Hanawalt is living in New York with her boyfriend, when she gets an email from Bob-Waksberg about a “show idea for BoJack, the depressed talking horse.”

“I said, ‘That sounds too sad,’ and he was like, ‘Yeah, maybe.’” But the pair worked together to design a pilot anyway and sold the show to show to Netflix in 2013. Tornante, the production company behind BoJack, wanted Hanawalt to sign on as the lead designer. She said no. They asked her again. She said yes. The rest is, uh, horsetory?

“I had to fly out to L.A. I’d never worked in an office like that before, much less managed other people. They were like, ‘Here’s your staff. Tell them what your ideas are for how you want the show to look.” I muttered something about how I like colors and complicated patterns and then I slinked away. I was hiding in my office.” Have things improved in the four-something years since then? “I’m still figuring it out. I’m not the best. I’m not a great boss because I don’t like to tell other people what to do.”

That’s one of the reasons Hanawalt’s books — of which she has written two and co-authored one — shine. Her art is what you’d imagine your drawings looked like when you were a kid, but if they were actually good. “When I look at my childhood art,” she says, “it’s the same. It’s animals dressed up as people in patterned clothing. It basically looked like concept art for BoJack. It’s kind of uncanny.” Hanawalt is a master of the vibrant watercolor illustration, the kind that you’d be drawn to at an apartment party only to notice that those cacti in a variety of pots are actually boobs and penises. Her creatures are funny and off-kilter (BoJack has a dolphin pop-star character named Sextina Aquafina), her writing is sensitive and funny, and she makes readers laugh about everything from pooping to the rules of breakfast. In one of the best sections of Hot Dog Taste Test, her new book about foodie culture (among other things), Hanawalt tries out new slogans for major brands. Subway’s “Eat Fresh” becomes “Smell Bread.” BMW: “Might as well look rich.” KFC: “Chickenyness.”

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Photo: Lisa Hanawalt

Among the pages of ridiculous musings is more serious fare — a few personal essays and pieces of illustrated journalism, one of which earned her a 2014 James Beard Award when it was published in Lucky Peach — but most of it squarely hits the funny bone. I still think about one page at least once a day: A woman stands in front of a restaurant host, saying, “Hi, I ate here seven hours ago, can I use the restroom? I want to go back and poop in the same place where I ate the food that created the poop in the first place.”

“I have existential worries inside of me but I don’t always know how to express them all the time,” Hanawalt tells me as we near the end of brunch. “People still come up to me and say, ‘Wow, it’s so crazy that you show women’s bodies in a gross way [in your book]’ and I’m like, It’s 2016! It’s important to me. I don’t consider myself a political artist but I am political just by nature of being a woman.” She says women have a special connection to her work, partially because she “makes it feel okay for them to be weirdos.” Speaking candidly about the heartbreaking events in America last week, she says, “I felt very conflicted about my book coming out this week. I didn’t want to promote it with all this shit going on, but then again, a lot of people bought it and told me that it helped them.”

The last comic essay in Hot Dog Taste Test is 100-word story about a woman who buys a horse, rides it after work, then comes home and eats meat. Her horse is suspicious, thinking that he will be turned into her next meal. The final two-page spread is an X-ray image of her skeleton body riding her skeleton horse. It is a beautiful, personal painting. She is an expert at making the sad seem softer. BoJack would approve.

But with all this talk about horses, how does Hanawalt envision herself in animal form? As some sort of BoJack-centaur hybrid? “The other day I was definitely a poodle, like a freshly groomed poodle, and god what am I today? Today I’m more of maybe like a lemur. I’m just winging it, I don’t know. I just looked in the mirror like, what am I?” It’s a big question that runs through much of Hot Dog Taste Test. “I made a tweet once that my friend just told me was her favorite tweet – I don’t normally brag about my tweets – it was just like, ‘I’m a hawk, but not like one of the majestic ones, I’m like a scrawny eagle who eats bees.’ And that really captured how I was feeling that day.”

Additional reporting by Abraham Riesman.